If you think finding a consistent career path in this superspecialized millennium is challenging, consider poor TracyAda Kyzer's plight. She's young, black and female in mid-Depression Chicago and received her college degree thanks to the scholarship monies of the Negro Women's Organization for Youth Education, a group that includes grandmother Stella, who raised her. College has broadened Tracy's views, and she sees the economic big picture in ways that -- at this moment in history -- might be shared only by the odd Wobbly or Garveyite. Why should the NWOYE stay small and gamble on pie sales when all it needs is money? Why should she be one of the few black women to receive a college degree? As she chides the ladies, "Why send a handful when you can send more?"
TracyAda's big idea is for the church ladies to make a daring bank raid, a scheme that will surely be blamed on John Dillinger -- who would suspect these innocents? And, in the larger moral universe, surely the ladies are more than justified in helping themselves, especially after the white bank manager has rejected and ridiculed the NWOYE's loan request, asking, "What would a colored girl want with an education?"
But this delightfully far-fetched premise is, fundamentally, merely the setup for the wide-open shtick of the crusading/backsliding "church ladies" of the NWOYE. Linda Kennedy, Regina Frye, Marsha Cann and Fannie Belle as Sudy, Redd, Jade and Blu, respectively, complain, cackle and hoot, unashamed and utterly watchable caricatures. Their wisecracking is great fun and the working heart of Steal Away. It falls to Amentha Dymally as Stella and newcomer Ayesha Jordan as TracyAda to explain the relationships and advance the plot, however. Alas, they are cruelly served by Ramona King's stilted script. Dymally finesses one awkward line after another with little more than dignified bearing and a soothing, grandmotherly break to her voice. Jordan is overmatched by such preposterous constructions as "We'll be least suspect in recovering money from the bank that is really ours."
Such a wildly uneven script is distracting, as is the historical mishmash of language (TracyAda addresses her elders extremely informally) and premodern radicalized politics, to say nothing of the paper-thin theological cover that the NWOYE extracts from Scripture. Yet they never once acknowledge the teachings of the "African Zion Church" they belong to. Plot holes also abound -- how did these ostensibly impecunious ladies gather tailored zoot suits, weapons and, one presumes, ammunition, getaway vehicles and a stethoscope for the crime? Ed Smith has directed this thin caper amusingly, though too many characters deliver crucial speeches facing upstage. Ultimately, Steal Away takes its cultural setting little more seriously than the bank robbery itself. That's too bad, because this portrait of noble-hearted women relishing true larceny is as subversive as the work of Zora Neale Hurston.
Steal Away continues through April 9.